Sunday, July 7, 2013

The thief of Philippi

As I was awaiting trial, on the third night of my internment in Philippi, the jailer added two men to our number. I discerned through the lamplight their clothes were of foreign origin and stained with blood, their faces cut and bruised. Clearly they had committed some heinous crime, for the jailer took them straight to the innermost cell, out of the prisoners’ sight, and fastened their feet in the stocks.

“Hey, what are you in for?” I called out after the jailer had left.

“We have committed the crime of turning a slave-girl’s heart against the chains of the oppressor,” one of them said.

“You have a funny way of talking. Where are you from, anyhow?”

“We recognize the sovereignty of no earthly kingdom, but if you must know, Silas and I hail from Antioch in Syria.”

“And who are you?”

“Paul, your humble servant.”

“You’re a long way from home, Paul.”

“Home is where the Spirit guides us.”

The prisoners whistled and jeered. “What are you in here for, really?” I asked.

“Theft. And you?”

“Theft also,” I said. “I am accused of stealing an ivory statue, dedicated to Apollo, god of the sun. I’m innocent, of course. What did you steal?”

“As I said before, we stole a slave-girl’s heart from this world and committed it to salvation in Christ Jesus our savior in eternity.”

“Who is this Christ Jesus?”

“He is the Son of the one true God and the forgiver of all sins.”

Upon hearing this, my eagerness for conversation with these newcomers waned. All my life I had watched the strong trample the weak, all in the name of this god or that. The world’s ways proved there was no such thing as sin. Who were these men but petty salesmen trying to profit from the divine favor of yet another jealous, conniving deity?

“Are you still awake, friend?” Paul said.

“I’m awake. I just don’t feel like talking, that’s all.”

“Then hear what I have to say. Silas and I have been walking through the city, preaching the Word of God and the loving sacrifice of Christ Jesus, by whose blood we are saved from this world. A slave-girl followed us for three days, shouting after us, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She wanted—”

I snickered. “She was right, you know.”

“About what?”

“You who choose slavery and brag about it make the worst spokesmen for freedom. Is it not hypocritical to offer salvation by this ‘Jesus’ on the one hand and servitude to God on the other?”

“That is an interesting question, coming from a thief locked in a prison cell.”

My cheeks burned at the slight. “What did you say?”

“We serve the master we fix our eyes on. Servitude to your lust for other people’s wealth has worked out well for you, clearly. Forgive me for not seeing straightaway the success of your criminal career. It is difficult to discern in this darkness.”

I reached through the bars of my cell, imagining squeezing Paul’s neck between my hands. “What does your imprisonment tell you about your servitude?” I spat.

“What is this prison to me but one of infinite trials I would have had to endure anyway? What is this particular suffering but the temporary convergence of changing circumstances?”

There was a pause. Paul continued, “The slave-girl wanted freedom from her masters. God can give her that, but not on condition of her acceptance of Christ Jesus. Where would it end? For, though she would not admit it before, she is bound by more than her earthly masters. Just as you are bound by more than your prison cell. Just as I am bound by more than these chains.”

The prison went quiet. My foolish mouth searched desperately for something to say, but words escaped me.

Faced with Paul’s blunt analysis of the inadequacy of my decisions, I slumped to the floor and wept. Whom did I serve? To what was my life oriented? These questions rattled inside my mind, confines I now considered worse than any prison cell I had occupied.

Suddenly the ground began to shake. I heard it in the stonemasonry first, in the jostling between the loosed stones. Then the ground began to heave. Dust fell from above and clogged my eyes and throat. Wiping away tears, I was astonished to find my prison door hanging open.

After the shaking had stopped, I walked through the door. I saw the other prisoners doing the same. We looked at each other in disbelief. We were free! We cheered and headed for the outer door. However, Paul and Silas, emerging from the innermost cell, caught up to us and told us to wait.

“Don’t go,” Silas said.

“What?!” I whispered, incredulous. “The jailer will be here any moment! We have to leave now!”

“Don’t go,” Paul echoed his companion. “Hide in the shadows and wait.”

I looked at the other prisoners, hoping they would see this for the folly that it was. But they looked hesitant and uncertain. They had fallen under the strangers’ spell!

“What are you up to?” I demanded, sticking my finger in Paul’s face. “Why are you refusing to let these men go free?”

Paul smiled and touched my shoulder. “Friend, it is I who should be asking you, why would you let these men exchange one prison for another?”

Understanding blinded me like the dawn. In my mind’s eye I saw two prisons. One looked just like the one I was standing in now, where men waited for death to consume them, hungry and haggard. The other was larger, brighter, but just as lonely and just as hopeless.

It doesn’t matter, I realized. The real prison was my mind and my soul, conformed to my propensity to sin.

I looked at the prisoners and saw the same truth in their faces.

“Okay,” I said. I led the other prisoners into the shadows of one of the opened cells. Paul and Silas retreated to the other side of the prison.

Yawning, the jailer threw open the outer door and stumbled into the prison. He started when he saw the empty cells.

“By Jupiter!” he cried out, unsheathing his sword. I watched with alarm as he turned in our direction. His eyes passed over me as if I were invisible. Then, he lifted up his arms and positioned the tip of the blade between the plates of his armor.

“So simple a task to keep watch through the night, yet I have failed even in that,” he cried, distraught. “I would rather die than endure the dishonor!”

“Stop!” Paul’s voice boomed from the prison’s bowels.

The jailer looked around, eyes wide with terror. Feebly he adopted a defensive posture. “Who are you? Show yourself!”

“Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”

Paul and Silas stepped forward out of the shadows. The prisoners and I did the same. The jailer, trembling, let the sword fall from his hand. He fell to his knees before Paul and Silas, clutching their robes.

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Silas palmed the crown of the jailer’s head. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

“I believe,” the jailer said, sobbing.

I fell to my knees beside the jailer. “I believe.”

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